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Guinea-Bissau President Vieira Leaves Legacy of Violence, Instability

The death of Guinea-Bissau's President Jaoa Bernardo Vieira at the hands of mutinous soldiers leaves a power vacuum in Guinea-Bissau. The slain president had been a central figure in Bissau-Guinean politics since independence in the West African nation. His two tumultuous terms as president were marked by unrest and violence.

The 2005 inaugural speech of Guinea-Bissau's slain president, Jaoa Bernardo "Nino" Vieira, belied the history of the small, tumultuous West African nation.

He called for reconciliation, wishing social peace and political stability for a country where those characteristics have been fleeting since independence from Portugal in 1974.

In 2005, Mr. Vieira returned from exile in Portugal to retake the presidency, this time through democratic means, after having been driven from the country by a coup in 1999. Then, Mr. Vieira had been in power for 19 years, having taken power in a 1980 coup.

He was elected in early 2005 to a new term as president, which came to an abrupt end Monday when he was slain as he attempted to flee his mansion in downtown Bissau. The president's home had reportedly come under attack from soldiers, though the military denies involvement.

Mr. Vieira's assassination followed the death Sunday of a primary political opponent, armed forces chief of staff General Batista Tagme Na Waie, who was killed by an explosion at his Bissau office.

"The two people who were the power brokers of the country, until they both died within the last 24 hours, knew each other in the independence struggle in the 1970s. So they are old comrades in arms, and I guess rivalries are all the more bitter for that," said Richard Moncrieff, who leads the International Crisis Group's West Africa Office.

Moncrieff says the assassination of General Waie was carefully planned. He says that level of detail may have led the Guinean military to believe that Mr. Vieira was involved.

Mr. Vieira was a principal figure in Guinea-Bissau's long and often brutal struggle for independence from colonial power Portugal. Born in the capital in 1939, an electrical technician by trade, Mr. Vieira rose quickly through the ranks of the liberation army, which formed to fight Portugal. Mr. Vieira trained in China, and upon his return to Bissau, took the leadership of the army.

With independence won in 1974, the army converted into the African Party for the Independence of Guinea-Bissau and Cape Verde. Mr. Vieira was named president of the People's National Assembly, and chief of staff of the armed forces. In 1978 he was promoted to the job of Principal Commissioner, a post equivalent to prime minister of Guinea-Bissau.

In 1980, Mr. Vieira orchestrated the coup that would bring him to power, overthrowing fellow revolutionary President Luis Cabral. Mr. Vieira resisted a number of coup attempts as he consolidated power.

In 1998, Mr. Vieira fired army chief staff Ansumane Mane, which led to a civil war that forced Mr. Vieira from power and led to presidential elections in 2000.

Koumba Yala, representing the opposition Party for Social Reform, won office. His term was also tumultuous, and he was swept from office by a coup in 2003, leading to elections in early 2005 in which Mr. Vieira regained the presidency.

But Mr. Vieira's latest term quickly turned sour when he lost the support of the military that had backed him for election under General Waie. The poor relations between the military and the government were demonstrated by lack of cooperation in a high profile drug smuggling investigation last year.

Mr. Vieira was forced to dissolve the unity government last July, after parliamentary elections had been postponed. A pair of coup attempts followed, one of which culminated in the presidential mansion coming under fire in November.

Moncrieff says the president's death leaves the future of Guinea-Bissau in doubt, just months after relatively peaceful parliamentary elections had given hope to the impoverished country.

"It seems that what these events show is that unless you deal with the willingness of the members of the elite to settle their differences you are not going to make progress on the host of other issues you need to make progress on in the country," he added.

He says the dual assassination leaves the embattled country without clear leadership, and Prime Minister Carlos Gomes, Jr. in a difficult position.

"There is a power vacuum. The prime minister does not have a power base within the army. The two most powerful people in the country have died- clearly a power vacuum," said Moncrieff. "There is a great risk."

The PAIGC swept to victory in last November's elections, and hopes were Guinea-Bissau had turned a corner in its violent history. The country is also recovering from a cholera epidemic which swept the country last year, leaving hundreds infected and scores dead.